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The power of stigma and the power of love

Stigma is a mark of disgrace associated with a particular circumstance or negative attribute

2011 Available in English, French, Portuguese and Spanish

Stigma causes much shame and loneliness. Photo: Richard Hanson/Tearfund

From: Stigma – Footsteps 86

Tackling stigma through dialogue and building relationships

As the daughter of an evangelical pastor in Bolivia, disclosing my HIV status presented the risk of facing blame, guilt and condemnation.

When I tested HIV positive in 2000, I decided to speak openly about my HIV status and my experience as a rape survivor.

The decision was based on my belief that faith communities and networks working on HIV and AIDS had to break the silence surrounding the spread of HIV among women.

What is stigma?

Stigma is a mark of disgrace associated with a particular circumstance or negative attribute. To stigmatise (to cause someone to suffer stigma) is to label a person or a group of people, based on preconceptions, wrong information or a conscious decision to reject others. When the idea of separating some people or a group of people with certain conditions turns into action, it becomes discrimination.

Stigma inside the church

Christianity is all about love. Jesus moved beyond questions of morality and purity to communicate his love to people. Despite this, I have seen people being stigmatised in church. The following people have not been treated as equals, in some cases because they do not meet particular expectations of moral perfection:

  • young, unmarried people who are facing unwanted pregnancies, and their families
  • people with disabilities
  • unmarried women
  • single mothers
  • drug users
  • alcohol addicts.

Jesus faced questions from religious leaders about why he mingled with sinners, women of questionable reputation, tax officers, sick people, children and many others. In addressing the needs of these often stigmatised people, Jesus not only restored their physical health and well-being but also restored their dignity. One beautiful example is the healing of an ‘impure woman’, whom he called ‘daughter’.

I remember when a certain pastor’s teenage daughter became pregnant. The father did not approve of sex outside marriage and asked her to have an abortion. After some time he could not continue to live with the secrecy of his actions, so he confessed to the church. The church’s reaction was to discipline him and his family, but it was done without love. The daughter decided to move to another country and we never heard about her again.

Was all the pain, shame and blame she suffered necessary to teach her a lesson? What did she need more, a lesson or love? We sometimes forget that Jesus reserved his harshest words for people who gave more attention to the outward appearance of religion than to loving their neighbours. Do we want the church in our community to be associated with love or condemnation?

Recently, another woman confessed to having had sex before marriage, but she repented and decided to marry her boyfriend. The pastor would not let her marry wearing a white dress. I asked the pastor, “If she has repented and if we believe God has truly forgiven her, why is there a need to remind her about her sin with a beige dress?” Thankfully, in the end she was allowed to marry wearing a white dress.

In my daily life and advocacy around HIV, I have to address my own stigma towards some groups of people, such as some overtly gay men, transgender people and sex workers. I experience a constant internal challenge to remember God’s love and grace.

Grace is an attribute of God. His graciousness means he does not give any of us what we deserve and instead he gives us what we don’t deserve – love, care and forgiveness.

As a Christian, I try to remember that because God loved me enough to care for me when I did not deserve it, I have no right to stigmatise others.

Stigma outside faith communities

Stigma does not happen only inside faith communities. Many aspects of a person’s identity and circumstances can be stigmatised: ethnic identity, sexuality, gender, marital status, health status, age and size, appearance, economic condition, education level and race.

Stigma is present in all societies and cultures. Some of the reasons we stigmatise others are:

  • lack of information
  • wrong information 
  • our values and beliefs
  • to get a sense of security and contentment from knowing that someone else is less happy than us.

Stigma makes ‘the other’ (the person or group of people that is different from ourselves) the target of our own fears, insecurity, guilt and lack of assurance. The power of stigma is only an illusion that covers up our feeling of insecurity at other people’s expense.

Stigma inside you

The one who stigmatises becomes a victim of stigma in the end. You can’t expect to enjoy good relationships with other people if you continue to build walls between yourself and others. You can’t expect to stigmatise others without expecting to live in loneliness in the end.

Stigma inside you will paralyse any growth with thoughts such as ‘I can’t do it’, ‘I am not good enough’, ‘No one loves me’, ‘I don’t deserve any better’ and similar lies.

All you need is love

Two weeks ago, my sister told me a very sad story. My four-year-old niece had a close friend in school. The two children came home and played. When the mother of the friend came to collect her child, she saw pictures of me and asked my niece to stop being a friend of her daughter. 

My sister talked to her. The woman said that her daughter could not visit my niece any more because while playing, an accident could occur, and if my blood happened to be around, her daughter would be at risk of getting HIV. She even asked if my two nieces (three and four years old) had been tested for HIV, given their constant interaction with me.

Since my nieces were very young, we have read together the story of a child living with HIV (Daniel) and his best friend in school (Leticia). The main message of this story, produced by Brazilian NGOs working with children living with HIV and affected by the HIV epidemic, is that Leticia truly loves her HIV positive friend. This is the story of two children who are friends. One is HIV positive, and the other one does not care about that.

With the simple method of storytelling, my nieces have been told the facts of HIV since they were six months old. Therefore, my nieces know they can’t get infected with HIV just by being in my house.

My four-year-old niece told me: “…her mother would not let her be my friend because she thinks, oh! She thinks that I have HIV! Can you imagine, Aunt?” 

Most importantly, my nieces learned to love before they learned to hate. As love, not hate, was their first automatic response to stigma, they could reject the ignorance and continue to love me. 

Children naturally love and mingle with most people around them but we teach them to hate. 

What attitudes do you need to change in yourself? What will you teach children around you?

Gracia Violeta Ross Quiroga
Bolivian Network of People Living with 
Edif. Guachalla, Mezanine of. 9. Calle Guachalla
La Paz
Bolivia (website in Spanish)

Gracia has been an HIV Ambassador for Tearfund since 2009.
[email protected]

Sharing an anti-stigma message in Cambodia. Photo: Kieran Dodds/Tearfund

Sharing an anti-stigma message in Cambodia. Photo: Kieran Dodds/Tearfund

Gracia Violeta Ross Quiroga makes necklaces with her two nieces. Photo: Gracia Violeta Ross Quiroga

Gracia Violeta Ross Quiroga makes necklaces with her two nieces. Photo: Gracia Violeta Ross Quiroga

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